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A boy becoming a man. Fan harassment is a fact of life for Redick.
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Defense. Atlantic Coast Conference scoring leader J.J. Redick is usually guarded by the opposition's premier defender.
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Cameron Crazies/J.J. jumper
Cameron Crazies/J.J. jumper. Redick's jump shot has been called the purest he's ever seen by Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The wound can’t decide if it wants to be a gouge mark or just a scrape. What it is, is pure ugly, about two inches long, a couple of centimeters wide, with a nasty purplish hue that suggests some depth. J.J. Redick rotates his left forearm and examines it, as if to ask himself, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
It’s been obvious for a while now just how badly people want to get a hold of the young Mr. Redick, the Duke University guard (and former Cave Spring star) with the sweetest shooting stroke in all of college basketball. His primary opponents are the opposing two guards of the Atlantic Coast Conference, an amazing collection of athletes who will seemingly do anything – grab him, bump him, push him, trip him, scratch and gouge him – to keep Redick from getting the slightest opening to get a shot off. His #4 jersey was so stretched and misshapen from opponents tugging on it last season that the Duke equipment manager had to issue him a new one just before the conference tournament.
The mayhem began in only the second exhibition game of this, his junior season, with that first wound courtesy of the Tastycake on Duke’s schedule, St. Francis/Xavier, a Canadian university that has won several national championships in that country. St. Francis lost by 50, but the team’s guards were strong and athletic and very intent on playing the 6-foot-4 Redick with the bump and run.
“They put their best athlete on J.J.,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward, “and it was really physical. J.J. showed a lot of poise and played like he’d been in a lot of games.”
That would prove a fitting thumbnail description of Redick over the course of the 2005 ACC season. Through late February, he was leading the conference in scoring and working overtime to position the Blue Devils and their thin roster for a run at the league championship.
All of that sounds challenging enough, but it doesn’t begin to describe the mental gauntlet that Redick has faced during another fierce ACC campaign.
As his mother Jeanie says matter of factly, “J.J.’s the most hated college basketball player in the country.”
Should anyone think she’s overstating the point, Sports Illustrated addressed the issue of J.J.’s image in a mid-season feature story. The signs in opponents’ arenas, the ugly taunts from rowdy college crowds (yes, even his 13-year-old sister has been targeted), have reached unprecedented levels of vitriol, and that’s saying a lot for the ACC, where students have long taken immense pride in their game-day craziness.
The immediate question, of course, is, why? Why do fans across the country hate Roanoke’s J.J.?
The answer seems a bit complicated.
As fans in the region have known for years, ACC basketball is the original TV reality series, sort of a hardwood “Survivor,” only the duration of the test covers far more than a 13-week schedule and “Survivor’s” silly, concocted-for-TV challenges. In ACC basketball, there is no escape, no release of the pressure, especially at Duke, the premier league’s premier program (The L.A. Times calls it the “Evil Empire of College Hoop”). The Blue Devils have a rabid core of fans that extends far beyond the school’s reach. Conversely, there’s a substantial “I Hate Duke” club that detests every element of the “Dookie” image, perceived as arrogant and preppy and irritatingly successful.
Redick stepped into this cauldron of public opinion three years ago as a freshman and soon discovered the plethora of websites rating Duke players. Blue Devil fans give them five stars and smooches while critics from other schools lash back with absolutely vicious personal comments, rough stuff for a college student to absorb.
“When people are jealous, they’re obviously going to be negative towards you,” Redick observed early in his college career.
That negativity reaches a crescendo during ACC road games where student crowds have been relentlessly tasteless with their crude taunting, which Redick has used as a motivational factor.
“It comes with big-time college basketball,” says David Carter, Redick’s former coach and a family friend. “J.J.’s developed a little bit of an attitude on the court responding to those crowds. It gets him pumped up once he listens to all that stuff and sees all those signs. He responds with the little gestures and the beating on his chest and other stuff. It’s no more than any other player does.”
The circumstance, however, feeds on itself because Redick has become the face of the hated Duke basketball.
“He’s so damned good, people hate to see him succeed,” says Carter. “Everybody wants to see him miss the big shots. If he starts off slow in a game and misses a couple, those fans really start cheering. They think this is a night where he’s gonna be off. But as he goes on in a game, he usually gets his rythmn. He starts hitting shots, and that’s when they hate him the worst because he comes through in the end and Duke wins another game.”
Not surprisingly, seeing the other team’s best athletes in his face has become a common experience for Redick.
“It’s tough, especially in our conference, to really go off, because people come up with these amazing game plans to shut down certain aspects of your game,” Redick says. “It just means you have to work harder. That’s one reason why this summer I wanted to get in better shape so I wouldn’t get worn down, so as the game went on I would just wear my man out.”
“He’s such a good shooter you have to change your defensive game plan to deal with him,” says former University of North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, now a scout for the New York Knicks. “That’s unusual, to have to do that for a 6-4 shooting guard. Usually you only do that for a really quick point guard or a big post player. He shoots that pure jump shot, not a set shot. You’re so concerned about his shooting, that you have this tendency to chase him. So he gets you up in the air and draws a foul. He’s such a great foul shooter he just kills you.”
It’s been this way for a while now. Carter, the former coach at Cave Spring Middle School, has sweet memories of Redick as a seventh grader. “We were playing the hated Hidden Valley,” Carter says. “We were behind like six points in the last minute.”
Hidden Valley left Redick open on the left side, and he drilled a 3 to tie the game at the buzzer. “We went on to win the game, and he scored most of our points in overtime too,” Carter recalls.
“I remember that game very vividly,” Redick says with a smile. “We were down six, and I hit a 3-pointer to cut it to three. Then one of my teammates got a steal and passed it over to me, and I got another 3. We sent it to overtime and won it. It was a great comeback.”
That was before Redick grew to 6-4 and developed the leg strength that drives his deep range. Redick went on to a celebrated AAU career with the talent-rich Boo Williams teams from Tidewater, known for having rosters stocked with future NBA players. The AAU national championship is considered the most hypercompetitive event in basketball, yet Redick played a huge role in leading his team (that included Maryland point guard John Gilchrist and Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall) to two national titles. Again, the team’s trip to its first national title was secured with a game-winning 3 from J.J., then just a Cave Spring sophomore. The next year he did the same with another game-winner that sent Boo Williams into the national championship game.
Then there was the 2002 AAA state championship game against undefeated George Wythe-Richmond, a team loaded with long athletic players that made their variety of zones a harrowing trap for every other high school in Virginia.
Redick, though, simply extended his range to 25, even 28, feet, and shredded GW for 43 points. By the time GW’s coaching staff grudgingly abandoned their zones, it was too late. J.J. had done the unfathomable – delivered a AAA state championship for the Cave. That may be the last zone that Redick will ever see.
Noticeable in the Vine Center that day on Liberty University’s campus was a small cluster of blue-painted Duke crazies who had made their way to the game in anticipation of J.J. bringing his “J” to Durham. He had signed with Duke early in his junior season, coming off his first national championship with Boo Williams, which meant that the expectations had time to soak in.
Once in the ACC, Redick immediately showed he belonged, averaging 15 points a game and finishing second in the ACC Freshman of the Year balloting. He was also named third team all-ACC. Better yet, he raised his scoring average to 17.0 points a game in the conference tourney as Duke swept its way to a record fifth straight league title. From there coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team rolled to yet another Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament, only to lose to Kansas and finish the season at 26-7.
Then came the big embarrassment: A Duke residence hall advisor smelled what she thought was marijuana and called police. Although no reefer was found, officers observed a group of glassy-eyed students in possession of a bong and turned the matter over to a university judicial board.
There was insufficient evidence for criminal charges, but Redick learned that his name alone was enough to take a routine college story and turn it into more fodder for the websites and national newswires.
“It’s something that comes with the territory, being a basketball player in a high profile program such as Duke,” he says now. “I always have to worry about how I present myself, what I appear like, how I act in public. I have eyes on me at all times.”
The incident soon slipped into the background, and his sophomore season took off on an 18-game winning streak that stoked dreams of Krzyzewski’s fourth national championship. Suddenly, the next big wallop struck. Redick’s unshakeable confidence became shakeable.
His shooting percentage plummeted.
“J.J. did not play well the last 10 or 11 games of the season,” says Bill Brille with the trademark bluntness that used to drive Hokie fans crazy. The former Roanoke Times sports editor in his retirement years hovers over Duke basketball as a semiofficial team historian.
For sure, Redick’s scoring average plummeted to nine points per game in the ACC tournament, which Duke failed to win for the first time in six years.
He began the opening round NCAA tournament game with Alabama State still in the downward spiral when Krzyzewski decided to take on the matter at halftime.
“We’ve had a great, great year, and J.J.’s been a great player for us, and we didn’t do that without him shooting,” Krzyzewski told reporters at the time. “I told him, ‘You need to shoot. You need to keep shooting and not put so much pressure on yourself that every shot has to go in.’”
Properly chastised, J.J. regained most of his form, pushing his scoring average to 16.0 points per game and helped the Blue Devils run to yet another Final Four, where they lost in the national semifinals to UConn.
In the aftermath, there was the sense that perhaps the pressure had finally gotten to J.J. a bit.
“I think towards the end of the season, it became less fun,” he says. “I felt like I started to wear down a little bit, not only physically, but mentally. I think I was battling a lot of things last year.”
His response was a grueling off-season commitment to conditioning with his teammates. How grueling? Redick lost at least 20 pounds.
“This summer was definitely the most difficult summer I’ve ever been through,” he says. “The physical work, the mental work, trying to become mentally tougher. Also physically better. The combination of the two is difficult. Five, six days a week we worked out as a team. That was great for team bonding and everything, but I also had to do a lot of stuff on my own, a lot of thinking on my own and figure stuff out for myself.”
Krzyzewski couldn’t have been more pleased – he named J.J. co-captain.
“The first thing about J, he’s healthy,” the coach said during media day in October. “Last summer he had this chronic hamstring problem, that kept him out of it, just when he thought he’d be ready to go, he hurt it again. He never got out of shape from last year. That’s one of the problems J.J. had in becoming the player he is. I mean he has been an outstanding player, part of it is that in high school you could be in really good shape for high school, then in the off-season get out of shape, and than crash and get in shape again. When you’re at this level of playing, you can never be out of shape. And, what he has down is he’s not only not gotten out of shape, he’s increased his level of physical conditioning. He is definitely in the best shape of his life. How does that translate into leadership? First of all, you lead by example. He doesn’t get tired in practice, or he doesn’t show it. So that’s a great example, you’re running sprints, and you try to win every sprint. You’re running the mile and you try to win the mile. You’re the bunny everyone is chasing, you’re the rabbit everyone is chasing on the race track. And he has done that.”
Coach K’s fierceness is evident in every phase of this program, and while the expectations bring the ultimate pressure, they come with the ultimate opportunity.
“It’s really tough,” Redick explains. “Kind of what coach always talks about is being great every day, being good every day, not taking a day off. For us, there’s really no off-season. We have to push ourselves, even in the summer, so it’s very challenging.”
That’s why mental toughness has become so important. That doesn’t suggest Redick has been weak so much as it explains the nature of the challenge in ACC basketball, long the most competitive conference in the land. And this season presents the biggest challenge of his basketball life at a time when the focus is entirely on him.
Much of Duke’s lineup – namely Luol Deng and Chris Duhon – has moved on to the NBA, as did top Duke recruit Shaun Livingston, the supposed heir to Duhon at the point. The loss of both point guards only adds to the pressure on Redick and guard Daniel Ewing, both of whom as natural shooting guards had grown used to Duhon’s excellent penetration and kick-out passes.
The losses meant that Duke opened the season with only eight players on scholarship (although Coach K later awarded two scholarships to longtime walkons), which for the first time in years suggested lowered expectations as far as the team’s prospects for the season.
Krzyzewski, Redick, Ewing and company aren’t about to accept that view of things. It’s an important season for J.J. He and his teammates have a lot to prove.
Through February, his stoic game face affixed, he had done an amazing job of moving over and through the mental and physical barriers. At times the thinness of the roster has become evident, but Redick hasn’t wavered.
The longtime success of NBA coach Phil Jackson has a little to do with Xs and Os and a lot to do with his understanding of the mental pressures of competition. Jackson has used meditation and other various mind games, aimed at easing the mental pressure on his own players while trying to increase pressure on his opponents.
Like Jackson, Redick is aware of the need to deal with the pressures. To do that, he relies on his excellent family in Roanoke (see sidebar) and several other secrets.
There’s a surprise at the top of his list. “One thing I do that kind of helps me to escape is to write poetry,” he says. “It helps me to get what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, down on paper. Actually it helps me to understand myself a little better.”
The other thing is good old Roanoke. “We don’t live in a neighborhood or anything, so when I go home it’s very refreshing because I’m able to get away,” he says. “There’s no pressure there or anything. Roanoke is definitely one of my refuges. I like to go up on the parkway. I like to go up to Roanoke Mountain. I got a couple of spots up there where I go with friends and we just talk.”
Up there in the sweet air, there’s no clutching or grabbing, no gouge wounds, no prying public eye, no chanting rowdies. Just the chance to be himself, something that J.J. likes a lot.
“It’s awesome,” he says.